Over 5,000 shares and 500 comments later, here’s our revised supplement guide for ectomorphs who are trying to build muscle quickly and leanly. We’ll go over the very best supplements, recommend some supplement brands that have good reputations, discuss creatine and other supplements that are proven to increase muscle growth, and we’ll go over the pros and cons of bulking supplements such as weight gainers.
To do this, we need to evaluate the research—all of the research. It’s easy to claim that a supplement is effective by showcasing results from a single study, but when we zoom out and look at the entire body of evidence, only a few supplements remain standing. This article takes into account every single study about a given supplement, favouring systemic reviews and meta-analyses over the latest (and often controversial) research.
In addition to leveraging science, we’ve also been in the trenches with this. I’ve personally used these supplements to gain 60 pounds at 11% body fat, and we’ve recommended them to nearly 10,000 members of the Bony to Beastly Bulking Program, as well as the 500,000 people who have read this article.
Before we dive in, these bulking supplements didn’t make the cut:
- Bulking Supplements for Vegans: such as vitamin b–12, calcium, zinc, beta alanine, taurine, carnitine, and so on. But that’s not because these supplements aren’t good, it’s just because they’re only relevant for guys bulking on a plant-based diet. Our article about vegan bulking has a list of recommended supplements.
- Citrulline Malate: good. This is the best “pump” supplement on the market right now, and is starting to get some good research behind it. When digested, it converts into arginine, which turns into nitric oxide, which allows you to get a fearsome pump. The pump improves the health of your blood vessels and increases protein synthesis, which could certainly help an ectomorph gain a little bit more muscle. This isn’t quite a top-tier supplement, but it’s a good one.
- Beta-alanine: good. Beta-alanine supplements are proving to be quite effective. They’re not quite top tier yet, but for ectomorphs eager to experiment with new supplements, this is another solid choice. The ideal dosage seems to be around 3–5 grams per day at any time (similar to creatine). Be warned, though—it can make your skin tingle (paresthesia). Harmless, but strange.
- Ashwagandha: decent. Last year a study came out showing that ashwagandha can increase testosterone production, reduce cortisol production, increase strength, limit fat storage, and accelerate the pace that your body can build muscle. To give you an idea of the magnitude of these effects, the 8-week study found a 15% greater increase in testosterone and a 44-pound greater increase in bench press strength when compared to the placebo group. Ashwagandha may help ectomorphs bulk up by increasing their testosterone production, but there’s not enough evidence yet.
- Vitamin D: decent. Vitamin D supplements can increase testosterone output if you’re deficient in vitamin D, and most people are. However, unlike steroids, it won’t boost your testosterone production outside of normal ranges. For guys who don’t get enough sun, though, this can bring their muscle-building potential back to baseline. It’s a good supplement, but it’s situational, and getting more sunlight would be better anyway.
- Fish oil: okay. Another study has come out showing that fish oil supplementation can slightly improve weightlifting performance (study). There are others showing that it can allow you to build muscle more leanly. However, these effects are quite weak compared to the core muscle-building supplements.
- Ecdysterone and ecdysteroids: interesting. This new study found that a spinach extract containing small amounts of ecdysterone caused the study participants to gain quite a bit of extra muscle mass and strength. However, this is just a single small study, it was hardly conclusive, and it’s still far too soon to tell whether ecdysterone could be a good bulking supplement.
- HMB: ignore for now. HMB performed very well in a couple recent studies, getting participants steroid-like gains. However, since HMB is found within protein sources, it’s generally better just to optimize your protein intake. Focusing on protein instead of HMB will allow you to build muscle more quickly.
- Nitrates: ignore for now. The nitrates found in beets and leafy greens are incredibly for your health, muscle soreness and even your lifting performance… but there’s no need to supplement with nitrate supplements. In fact, if you want the benefits of eating more vegetables without needing to eat more vegetables, we recommend Athletic Greens instead.
- Collagen powder: ignore for now. A new study just came out showing that collagen powder can be effective for building muscle in old people with sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss). However, as with HMB, collagen is found within regular protein sources. You’ll build muscle far better if you just focus on your protein intake.
- Arginine: use citrulline Malate instead. Arginine is a popular supplement that cannot be digested properly, and thus doesn’t work. Citrulline malate can be digested properly, successfully producing the intended effect (a bigger pump and accelerated muscle growth).
- Baking powder: use beta-alanine instead. Baking powder mimics the effects of beta-alanine, making it an effective pre-workout supplement… kind of. Not only will it make you feel incredibly sick and dehydrated, a single dose contains 4x your recommended daily sodium intake.
With that handled, let’s move on to the best bulking supplements for ectomorphs. All of these have proven to be incredibly effective, with hundreds of studies backing them up.
Disclaimer: please consult with your physician before taking these supplements. We’ll reference authorities (such as the Mayo Clinic) as well as clinical research, but keep in mind that your situation may not be typical. For example, these supplements interact poorly with certain health conditions. It’s always wise to consult with your doctor before taking supplements.
Ectomorphs Benefit From Different Supplements
As ectomorphs, our goal is opposite of everyone else. They want to lose weight, we want to gain it. This means that we’re using a different set of criteria to evaluate the effectiveness of our supplements. More calories? Good. More weight gain? Good. Does it increase appetite? Perfect.
For example, consider branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs are an incredibly popular ingredient in muscle-building supplement cocktails. However, BCAAs are simply a calorie-light version of protein powder. A standard serving of whey protein powder contains the exact same nutrients as a standard scoop of BCAAs. The difference is that the whey protein also contains a ton of other amino acids and nutrients, making it far higher in calories.
If someone is looking for a low-calorie alternative to protein powder, BCAAs are a good choice. However, as hardgainers, we’re desperately trying to eat more calories so that we can gain weight. And we don’t just want the three branched-chain amino acids, we want all of the amino acids. After all, the more amino acids there are in a protein source, the better it will be for building muscle (study).
BCAAs are also popular with guys who practice intermittent fasting. This is because having BCAAs during the fasting period is thought to be a way to stimulate muscle growth without breaking the fast. However, intermittent fasting makes it harder to gain weight, so it’s the same issue all over again.
Anyway, this means that whey protein is far better for our goals. It’s cheaper, it’s healthier, it has the ideal blend of all the amino acids, and it has more calories. We can even take this line of thinking one step further. When it comes to whey protein, whey protein isolates are usually considered the gold standard because they’re a purer source of protein—more of the carbs are processed out. Whey protein concentrates, on the other hand, use a less refined type of processing that leaves more of the carbs and nutrients mixed in with the protein—it’s a higher-calorie and more nutrient-dense alternative, which is great for us.
This is all to say that when looking at supplements, we need to keep our specific goal in mind: we need bulking supplements.
Do Ectomorphs Need Supplements To Bulk?
The short answer is no, you don’t need supplements to build muscle. You don’t even need supplements in order to build muscle quickly. You can build plenty of muscle simply by following a good weight training program, eating enough protein and carbs, eating enough calories, and getting plenty of good sleep.
Furthermore, without those getting fundamentals down, supplements are a waste of money. After all, even if you find a supplement that can boost your results by 50%, an extra 50% on top of nothing is still nothing.
If you’re a beginner, you’re going to experience a phenomenon called newbie gains, which is going to allow you to build muscle extremely quickly during your first few weeks. Your results may vary, of course, but beginners are often able to build muscle quite quickly:
Your muscle growth will taper off over the course of the year, but by then you may have gained as much as 40 pounds. You may not even be skinny any longer.
If you aren’t lifting weights yet, I recommend getting a good bulking program and starting with that. You might even like our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program.
If you already know the fundamentals of building muscle, though, supplements can help you do a few things:
- Supplements can make a bulking routine easier. For example, protein powder makes it easier to eat enough protein. Mix it with some water and you’re done. Protein powder also has the advantage of not being very filling, making it easier to eat enough calories.
- Supplements can speed up the rate that you build muscle. For example, creatine will allow you to build muscle more quickly, meaning that you might able to gain your first twenty pounds of muscle in fifteen weeks instead of twenty.
- Supplements can help keep your gains leaner. For example, by speeding up the rate that you can build muscle, creatine can also help you stay leaner. If more of the extra calories you’re eating are being invested in muscle, there are fewer left over to be stored as fat.
- Supplements can improve consistency. For example, caffeine can help reduce fatigue, making it easier to hit the gym consistently. Caffeine is also addictive (which is both good and bad), so if you get in the habit of having it before lifting, you might become addicted to your lifting routine.
None of these things are essential, but they might make supplements worthwhile for you.
Simple Calories Outperform Fancy Ingredients
I don’t know about you, but the hardest part about building muscle for me is eating enough. Not the lifting, but the eating. That’s not uncommon for ectomorphs, either. It’s common for us to have smaller stomachs and faster metabolisms, which can make it incredibly hard to eat enough calories to gain weight. That has a couple implications for which supplements we should pick.
First, bulking means eating more food, which means that we’re going to get extra nutrients from that extra food. As a result, we don’t need to worry as much about supplementing with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Second, we want to prioritize supplements that help us get into a calorie surplus. Protein powders are rich in calories, easy on the appetite, and very quickly digested, making them great bulking supplements. This is even true of carbohydrate powders. For example, in this study, guys who added whey protein and maltodextrin into their diet gained an extra 7.5 pounds of muscle over the course of 8 weeks while simultaneously losing fat.
Mixing protein with maltodextrin makes a “weight-gainer shake.” You can make them yourself or you can buy them pre-mixed. What makes these weight-gainers so effective is simply their density of calories, carbs, and protein. Furthermore, having all of those calories right after your workout, when your muscles are more insulin sensitive, will help you build a bit more muscle slightly more leanly (study, study, study).
This “post-workout anabolic window” is often exaggerated in the muscle magazines, but there is indeed some benefit to having plenty of carbs and protein after working out. It’s especially helpful for us ectomorphs because lifting can sometimes blunt our appetites, which can cause us to fall behind on our calories. Having a post-workout shake solves that problem.
Now, to be clear, you can accomplish this same thing with chocolate milk. The important thing is that you get that influx of protein and carbs, not that you have a specific combination of supplements. In this case, the only advantage of using supplements is that it’s easier to pack a protein/carb shake in your gym bag than it is to pack a quart of milk. Aside from that minor inconvenience, though, milk can be fantastic for building muscle. So can a wide variety of other foods.
Weight-gainer shakes simply help us eat more calories. You’ll be drinking the calories, they’re all quickly digestible, and they won’t take up much room in your stomach (study, study). This makes downing 1000+ calories pretty easy (albeit unpleasant), and you can do it in a couple gulps before heading home from the gym.
Some supplements do provide benefits that food cannot. We’re getting ahead of ourselves a little bit, but there is one supplement that doesn’t contain calories but can still boost muscle growth by as much as 50%—especially if you’re still fairly new to bulking up. It’s called creatine. You’ve probably heard of it.
These bulking supplements are pretty affordable. They’re even affordable compared to buying chicken and rice at the grocery store. If there were fancier supplements out there that worked better than these, we’d tell you about them. But there aren’t. The basics tend to provide the best results. That’s why they’re the basics.
Okay, now onto the specific ingredients so that you can make your own workout shake. But again, I want to remind you that you should consult your doctor before taking supplements. As we mentioned above, although these supplements have quite a bit of evidence proving their effectiveness and even safety, that doesn’t mean that they’ll be safe for you, as an individual. For example, supplements can interact poorly with certain health conditions.
Creatine is the most famous bulking supplement, and with good reason (study). There have been hundreds of studies proving that it increases muscle growth and strength gains (study, study, study, study). The study designs are wonderfully simple, too. If you simply mix creatine into someone’s morning coffee, they’ll reliably gain more muscle and strength.
Is Creatine Safe / Healthy?
The other benefit to creatine is that it’s been studied for several decades now and has proven itself to be remarkable safe and healthy (study, study, study). As a result, authorities such as the Mayo Clinic list creatine as “generally safe” and list its uses as follows:
Your body converts creatine to phosphocreatine and stores it in your muscles, where it’s used for energy. As a result, people take creatine orally to improve athletic performance and increase muscle mass.
However, they do note that “people who have kidney disorders or people at risk of developing kidney disease should talk to a doctor before taking creatine due to concerns that the supplement might cause kidney damage.”
If you’re healthy, the only thing you need to be mindful of is drinking enough water. Creatine pulls fluid into your muscles, so if you don’t have enough fluid available, you might give yourself a stomach ache. This is why creatine is normally mixed into drinks (such as water or protein shakes).
How does Creatine work?
Creatine improves muscle growth in two main ways:
- It helps your body replenish ATP, which is the type of fuel that you use when lifting heavy weights. This allows you to eke out a couple extra reps, stimulating a little bit more muscle growth.
- Creatine also improves muscle protein synthesis and glycogen storage. This means that not only will you build more muscle via your training, you’ll also get more muscle out of the food that you’re eating.
How much extra muscle growth do you get from creatine?
This 8-week study investigated what would happen if beginners were put on a workout program and given either a carb shake or a carb + creatine shake.
- The group who got the carb shake gained 6 pounds of muscle.
- The group who got the carb shake + creatine gained 9 pounds of muscle.
So in this case, creatine boosted muscle growth by 50% in beginners who were new to lifting weights. We’d expect that effect to slow as their muscles became fully saturated with the extra creatine, though.
Creatine slightly reduces fat gains while bulking
Creatine will improve insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells. More insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells means that more of the calories you eat are used to build muscle instead of being stored as fat. This can help to prevent fat gain while bulking.
Most of us ectomorphs naturally have great insulin sensitivity already, then lifting weights will improve it, and then building muscle will improve it further. It’s not something we necessarily need help with. Still, having creatine give us an even better edge is always nice.
Should You “Load” Creatine?
If you take 5 grams of creatine every day, it will take around a month for your creatine levels to rise to max levels. This will make your bulking progress seem nice and smooth, since your muscles will also be pulling in that extra fluid as you bulk up. This has proven to be wonderfully effective for building muscle.
However, fast and steady wins the race, right? To cut that loading period down to a week, you could take four 5-gram doses each day for a week. At that point, you’d then drop your intake down to a daily 5-gram dose. However, it’s unclear whether there’s a muscle-building advantage to loading up quickly like that. Furthermore, the risk of becoming dehydrated goes up. As a result, we recommend taking 5 grams every day instead. It’s just as good for building muscle and there’s less risk of having unpleasant side effects (such as stomach cramping).
However, there’s one interesting caveat to mention. Around 25–33% of people don’t respond to creatine at all (study, study). These people are called creatine non-responders. It’s not entirely clear why some people respond to creatine and others don’t, but it might have to do with how much meat people have in their diet. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, creatine seems to have a stronger effect. If you eat a lot of meat, it may have a weaker effect.
This is a good example of how the results that you get from supplements can vary. Some people will have a stronger-than-average response to creatine, others will be total non-responders.
Most weight-gainer supplements are a combination of protein powder and carbohydrate powder. Usually they’ll use whey and maltodextrin, but you could also make one out of, say, pea protein and ground oats.
The first reason that maltodextrin is so popular in weight-gainer shakes is because it’s a starch that digests fairly quickly and easily. Using a starch is ideal because that’s what our bodies prefer to use for energy (in the form of blood sugar). It’s also what our muscles use for fuel (in the form of glycogen). Given how efficient of a short-term energy source it is, it’s quite unlikely to be stored as fat. (Your body much prefers storing fatty acids as body fat.)
The second reason that maltodextrin is popular is because it’s so unbelievably cheap. Given how cheap it is, you’d almost think you were buying a tub of flour… and you’d be almost correct! In fact, the only significant difference between maltodextrin (corn powder) and flour (grain powder) is that maltodextrin can be eaten raw, whereas flour must be cooked first. This allows you to mix it into protein shakes.
That study in the creatine section is said to have produced the highest non-steroidal increases in lean mass ever seen in the placebo group. The study was technically studying creatine, so the researchers were surprised when the placebo group, who was just getting corn powder, saw a massive increase in muscle mass, gaining 6 pounds of lean muscle in just 8 weeks. (Part of this is due the participants being put on a fairly good lifting program, but still.)
Will consuming refined carbohydrates make you fat?
As an ectomorph who’s lifting weights and trying to build muscle, getting a good portion of your calories from starchy carbohydrates is actually a pretty good way of minimizing fat gains. Guys tend to build muscle the most leanly on higher carb diets, and starches are a great type of carb for building muscle.
Lifting raises the insulin sensitivity in your muscle cells, especially in the two hours following your last workout, and especially if you’re doing full body workouts. This means that any surplus calories consumed within a couple hours of an effective workout are more likely to be stored as muscle than fat.
To make absolutely sure of this, we consulted the most respected researcher in this field, Dr James Krieger, PhD, who told us:
Post-workout carbohydrates shouldn’t cause you any trouble in the long run as you are extremely insulin sensitive after training. As long as you maintain a good diet, good activity, keep your body fat low, and your fasting blood sugar remains normal, then you should be fine. – James Krieger, PhD
Whey is an easily digested protein found in milk. It’s processed fairly minimally, allowing it to retain many vitamins and minerals. Many nutritionists and dieticians consider it a whole food, as they would with other minimally processed dairy products, like cheese and yoghurt. Because of it’s high protein content, though, whey protein powder is nutritionally more similar to a chicken breast.
Why is Whey Protein Good for Bulking?
Our muscle fibres are constructed out of the protein we eat, so a shortage of protein limits the amount of muscle we can build (study, study). If we’re gaining weight, but our rate of muscle growth is limited, then we’ll be forced to store body fat instead. As a result, not consuming enough protein can cause us to gain less muscle and more fat. Not ideal.
However, although 0.8g/lb/day is the true minimum amount of protein that’s needed to optimally stimulate muscle growth, we recommend aiming a little higher. The main reason for that is because most people overestimate the amount of protein they eat. It’s not their fault, either. Oftentimes the nutrition label or calorie calculator is wrong. For example, an interesting (indie) study looked into the top brands of whey protein. The study went viral because it showed that many popular protein supplements contained much less protein than they claimed. The same is true with nutrition labels.
Anyway, as for how much whey protein you should have per day, the important thing is simply having enough protein in your diet overall. Whether you choose to eat more chicken, greek yoghurt, whey protein, pea protein, or pumpkin seeds is up to you. All will work similarly well.
How Much Whey Protein Should You Have Per Day?
If you’re trying to build muscle as quickly as possible, you need roughly 0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight per day. For a 150-pound man, that’s 120 grams of protein per day. Less than that, and you’ll be building muscle at a reduced pace. More than that isn’t harmful, but it won’t cause any extra muscle growth.
Now, as we mentioned above, where you get that protein is up to you. Maybe your diet is naturally rich in protein, so you don’t even need whey at all. Or maybe you save it for your post-workout shakes. On the other hand, perhaps your diet is low on protein, so you have a couple scoops every day (adding around 55 grams of protein to your diet).
Of course, as will all supplements, different people interact with whey protein differently. For example, some experts worry that it might not be a good supplement for people with pre-existing kidney issues. So, as always, you should consult with your physician to see how much whey protein you should be consuming, if you should even be consuming it at all.
Why is whey protein the best type of protein powder?
Whey digests very quickly and efficiently, and it contains the perfect blend of amino acids for building muscle. This means that whey protein provides all the benefits of BCAA supplements and HMB supplements, all for a fraction of the price, and while containing several times as many calories, vitamins and minerals. Whey is also especially high in the amino acid leucine, which Dr Layne Norton, PhD, proved was important for stimulating muscle growth. (Pea protein is also high in leucine, for the record.)
Because of how effectively whey protein stimulates muscle growth, and because of how efficiently digested it is, it’s a great type of protein to take before, during, or after a workout (study, study). This is even more important when doing full-body workouts, as you’ll be stimulating muscle growth throughout your entire body.
Then, if you really want to kick things up a notch, you can combine whey protein with an efficiently digested high-calorie carb source, such as maltodextrin (study). This is why most commercial weight gainers will combine these two ingredients. You could, of course, buy a pre-mixed weight-gainer, but most of us find it helpful to have the two ingredients availably separately so that we have more control over our macros.
Whey is also especially good for us ectomorphs because it’s calorically dense, it’s easy on the appetite, it’s extremely quick to prepare and consume, it’s fairly affordable per gram of protein, and it tastes better in smoothies than tuna. So if you’re struggling to gain weight, a tub of whey can go a long way.
The Ectomorph Bulking Supplement Protocol
Supplements won’t make or break your bulking routine. The quality of your workouts and diet are far more important. However, supplements can still help. Of all the supplements out there, the very best bulking supplements for ectomorphs are:
- Creatine for the improved rate of muscle growth.
- Maltodextrin to make gaining weight easier.
- Whey to make it easier to eat enough protein.
Daily Creatine: Take 5 grams every day. A simple way to do this is to mix it into a glass of water and have it first thing every morning. I also like to mix a few grams into my workout shakes.
Training drink: 30-90 grams of whey protein (or other protein powder) + 60-180 grams of maltodextrin (or other starch powder) + 5 grams of creatine.
The smaller dose is a fairly typical post-workout shake, and it will fully take care of all of the nutrient timing benefits (study). The larger dose turns it into more of a weight-gainer, which is great if you’re having trouble gaining weight.
You’d want to have this shake within 1-2 hours of training for optimal results (study, study, study, study). Personally, I start sipping on it as I begin my workout, and then I chug whatever’s left when I finish my workout. It tastes like sludge, but nothing will guarantee muscle growth like consuming tons of good calories after a good workout.
For most of us skinny guys, this is the magic bulking formula we’ve been missing, making it much easier to build muscle without stressing our stomachs or force-feeding ourselves.
Finally, as one last disclaimer, you don’t need supplements to build muscle. Your results will vary. And you should consult with your doctor before getting them. In fact, it may even be best to simply start with diet and exercise.